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On November 8, 1926, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist and fierce antibourgeois, anti-Fascist journalist and deputy, was arrested by Benito Mussolini’s police and deported to the tiny island of Ustica. His sentence was twenty years. Until his release from incarceration on April 21, 1937, six days before his death, he was variously confined at Turi near Bari, at Formia, and at Milan, until his return to his native Sardinia. A small man physically, with a deformity that gave him the appearance of a humpbacked dwarf, he suffered from tuberculosis and arteriosclerosis. Despite these infirmities and under the eyes of his Fascist jailers, he wrote 219 letters (published in 1947) to his wife and a handful of other family members. Most important, he managed to produce roughly twenty-eight hundred pages of social analysis, philosophy, and political prophecy that constitute his Prison Notebooks, containing his singular commentaries and reflections. Gramsci’s covert writings were essential to his psychic survival: He had a fierce determination to be heard.

The substance of the notebooks was not developed sequentially. Gramsci was a thinker working under immense pressure and stress. Consequently, portions of an essay would be written at one time; months or years later it would be amended and appended.

The notebooks consist of a sequence of essays—a series of reflections. They are Marxist, but Sardinian rather than German or Russian. Gramsci’s personal background was that of a high meridional, middle-class culture. Yet his was a bourgeois family that was thrown into desperate poverty. The suffering of the poor was not something he had to imagine; it had been an intimate part of his daily experience.

Substantively, Prison Notebooks falls into several related sections. One section deals with problems of historical materialism. It includes Gramsci’s introduction to the study of philosophy and historical materialism, some problems for the study of the philosophy of praxis, critical notes on a tentative popular manual of sociology, and an essay on Benedetto Croce, who had a profound influence on Gramsci, and historical materialism.

A second intellectually coherent section of the notebooks deals with the philosophy of Praxis (action as opposed to theory). In this essay, Gramsci discusses Antonio Labriola’s philosophical writings on the subject of praxis (which involved the influences of a number of Soviet and German Marxists) and discusses the intellectual roots of the concept of praxis. In Gramsci’s verbal shorthand, praxis could well be represented by the thought of G.W.F. Hegel, the great German philosopher, joined with the principal ideas of David Ricardo, the English classical economist. Gramsci’s point was that since Karl Marx had been a student of Hegel and, indirectly, of Ricardo, Marxist thought evolved in a fairly unified manner from the nineteenth century into his own day; that is, its intellectual roots evolved from main-line European culture. Thus, praxis, the philosophy of action, was a product of an ineluctable historical process. The final sections of this essay discuss Marx’s contributions.

Other sections of the notebooks deal with such subjects as historical sociology, politics, civilization, and culture. Each essay contains brief reflections, critiques, and conclusions—all related to examinations of various socialisms and their relationships, historical and intellectual, to Gramsci’s views on Marxism.

Context

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In 1924, Antonio Gramsci was elected as a Communist deputy in the Italian Parliament. Despite enjoying parliamentary immunity, he was arrested on November 8, 1926, under orders of the Fascist head of state, Benito Mussolini. Convicted of political subversion after a perfunctory trial, Gramsci was incarcerated until a few days before he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage that caused his death on April 27, 1937.

In January, 1929, Gramsci gained permission to write in his cell. He used large, lined exercise books to chronicle his observations about historical events and his readings. Over the next six years, Gramsci wrote almost three thousand pages, which eventually became the Prison Notebooks.

Each page Gramsci wrote was subject to censorship by the prison warden. Thus, Gramsci’s task was to advance a program to energize socially disenfranchised people while evading the gaze of prison censors. His writings were not detached searches for abstract truths but contributions to concrete political struggle.

After World War II, Gramsci’s literary executors published selections of the Prison Notebooks organized around themes such as “The Risorgimento” and “Literature and the National Life.” Numerous other editions of selections followed. It was not until 1975, however, that the Prison Notebooks were published, under the editorship of Valentino Gerratana, in their entirety and in chronological order.

The Prison Notebooks must be understood in context. First, Gramsci intended to sketch a new vision of politics empowering those hitherto on the margins of power and privilege. Second, although a committed Communist, Gramsci nevertheless cast a critical eye toward the excesses of fundamental Marxist theory and Soviet practice. Third, he avoided freezing his political thoughts in fixed doctrines or philosophical systems. Instead, he self-consciously wrote in fragments that invited future development. Fourth, the work was written under censorship, so the precise meanings of many of Gramsci’s fragments are inherently controversial. Fifth, his readings while in prison were limited and he was frustrated by his inability to consult all available sources. Sixth, Gramsci evaluated his work concretely—Would it contribute to the political struggle against the dominant social order?—although he understood that prison life isolated him from the people on the margins who must translate his theory into political action. Gramsci did not take himself to be imposing abstract ideas on social reality. His work has value only if the ideas arise from social reality and help realize a politics of inclusion.

The Prison Notebooks show the influence of the philosophical idealism of Benedetto Croce. Gramsci criticized Croce for contributing to the defense of mainstream liberal-capitalist politics and for defining national character in terms of an intellectual elite. Nevertheless, Gramsci also saw Croce as a promoter of intellectual reform who rejected religion, scientific dogmas, philosophical system building, and irrational myths. Moreover, Gramsci appreciated Croce’s concise, clear literary style and historicism, which he took to be prime reasons for Croce’s growing influence in Europe. Gramsci also deepened his understanding that all human activity is political through his reading and analysis of Croce’s writings.

Ideological Hegemony

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Gramsci aspired to loosen Marxism’s scientific and material inclinations and reinstate the importance of cultural and ideological change. He was inspired by Marxism’s democratic impulses and by the need to translate ideas into political action. Earlier Marxist thinkers insisted that the working class was an inherently revolutionary force, that capitalism’s collapse was inevitable, and that the manner of collapse was predictable. Gramsci rejected these convictions. Instead, he believed that liberal-capitalist regimes were able to transform and reproduce themselves despite their persistent economic contradictions. They did this, according to Gramsci, by establishing ideological hegemony.

An ideological hegemony consists of values, cultural attitudes, beliefs, social norms, and legal structures that thoroughly saturate civil society. Whereas earlier Marxist theorists stressed the role of the state and the way economic forces molded dominant ideas, Gramsci emphasized the active role ideas play in class struggle and denied that a single cause, such as economics, could explain all social development.

Major social institutions—the state, legal systems, schools, workplaces, churches, families, media—transmit the dominant ideas and the practices they support. A nation’s popular consciousness is thus transformed. The most solid ideological hegemonies receive general acceptance and come to be viewed as natural, appropriate, perhaps even inevitable. In this manner, the ruling ideas become so deeply embedded in social relations that they are internalized by citizens as common sense. An ideological hegemony conceals the sources of its ideas and practices—particular power relations and specific historical circumstances—and presents itself as ahistorical truth.

Social Change and Revolution

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For Gramsci, the state mobilizes both force and consent. As a forum of ideological and political dispute and a major medium through which the dominant classes lure popular consent, the state plays a major role in solidifying ideological hegemony. However, instead of relying mainly on the dominant Marxist analyses of economic base-ideological superstructure and state power, Gramsci introduces the notions of historical bloc and ensemble of relations. A historical bloc is formed by popular groups built around a common ideology that challenges the dominant set of ideas. Economic, social, and ideological forces combine to change social conditions. Social forces intrude on existing class domination, and coalitions are formed to shift the ensemble of relations, the totality of social relations in historical context, to a new social order. Although he did not ignore the important role of economics in social change, Gramsci refused to view all cultural and ideological reality as caused only by economic factors.

Gramsci contrasted passive revolution with popular political struggle. Conducted mainly through state agency, passive revolutions respond to perceived crisis by changing the economic structure from above. In contrast, popular political struggle requires the active participation of the masses. Popular political struggle requires a crisis of authority. Revolution must undermine the spiritual power of the ruling classes by penetrating the false appearances tied to the dominant order and by creating a new set of beliefs, cultural attitudes, and social relations. A counterhegemony must challenge and augur the collapse of the old authority patterns.

At early stages of revolt, one can expect mass apathy, cynicism, and confusion as the gap between the promises and the performances of the dominant order widens. Next, one can expect overt, political forms of class struggle: the spread of antiauthoritarian norms, the development of new social relations, antiestablishment subcultures, new language codes, and emerging ways of life. State repression and force may follow. Such a response may serve to quell rebellion if the underlying counterhegemony is weak or to ennoble the rebels by drawing new supporters if the counterhegemony is strong. Successful revolution requires the unsettling of the old ensemble of relations and the transformation of civil society, which prefigures a new state system built on nonauthoritarian foundations. The revolutionary process will involve lengthy transition periods and much unpredictability. Such revolutionary strategies constitute a war of position in which the civil society of a developed nation is the object of attack. In contrast, in primitive societies, Gramsci advised wars of movement in which the state is the object of frontal attack.

What will energize a revolution? Marxists were divided between two answers: spontaneity and vanguardism. Advocates of the spontaneity theory held that the working class would rise up to overthrow the state once capitalism could no longer mask its economic contradictions. A time would come when capitalism could no longer efficiently make use of developing technology. Economic conditions would be so bleak that workers would no longer be mystified by the ideological superstructure and they would solidify into a revolutionary class. In contrast, advocates of vanguardism were less likely to view workers as an inherently revolutionary class. They stressed the role of the communist party in actively promoting and organizing political struggle.

Although Gramsci at various times was drawn to each of these models, his considered judgment was that each was fatally flawed. His relentless commitment to political inclusion undermined vanguardism by an elite force, and his equally strong conviction about the revolutionary role of ideas unsettled spontaneity theory. Instead, he advanced the notion of organic intellectuals.

Organic Intellectuals

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Gramsci viewed traditional intellectuals such as writers, artists, philosophers, and the clergy as an independent social class typically divorced from social action. He emphasized how all human action is inherently political and how all reflective humans are intellectuals. He viewed working-class intellectualism as part of everyday life. Gramsci was convinced that there exists a general historical process that tends continually to unify the entire human race. Once he combined his inclusive vision of politics, his conviction that history tended to extend high culture, and his belief that all human action is political, his notion of organic intellectuals followed. The underclasses must generate their own intellectual base, revolutionary consciousness, and political theories from self-activity. The solution to lagging revolutionary consciousness among workers is not a vanguard elite who seek to impose a rebellious spirit externally. Nor is the solution blind insistence that communist revolution is inevitable and working-class consciousness will arise on cue at the appropriate historical moment. The solution is for workers to become revolutionaries through activity in the workplace, in the home, and in civil life generally. Decades before contemporary feminism, Gramsci insisted that the personal is political. Again, Gramsci highlights the importance of extending democracy through ideas that translate to social activity. The revolutionary party must be a mass party rooted in everyday existence. It must be an agent of social change that coordinates historical forces already in motion. Most important, it cannot be a force of external imposition if it is to prefigure a classless, radically democratic social order.

An Alternative to Marxism

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Gramsci presents a clear alternative to the historical materialism of Karl Marx, the vanguardism and state centralism of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the spontaneity theory of Rosa Luxemburg, and the social democracy of Eduard Bernstein. He underscored the democratic impulses in Marxism: the need for workers to nurture and express their own critical consciousness; the importance of liberating oneself from the constraints of false necessities; the practical advantage of viewing revolution as a series of human, active political events; and the role of consent in both sustaining and unsettling dominant political arrangements. Gramsci distanced himself from the scientism of Marxism. His historical bloc and ensemble of relations analysis alters the economic base and ideological superstructure model; he did not believe in the historical inevitability or clear predictability of communist revolution; and he viewed history as indeterminate.

Perhaps more than any other Marxist thinker, Gramsci understood that political ends are prefigured in the means used to achieve them. If the goal is a classless, sharply democratic society that absorbs the functions of the modern state, then revolutionary activity must itself assume that form. Rather than advancing a universal model of communism, as did Joseph Stalin, Gramsci counseled popular movements that paid careful attention to existing national character and differences in historical circumstances. Because he understood theoretical activity as a changing, dialectical part of mass struggle, he was sensitive to novel ideas, ambiguity, unevenness, and indeterminacy. His own work reflects little dogmatism and a robust sense of the inherent contestability of political strategies and ideas.

Gramsci has had great influence, particularly in Italy, among leftist thinkers who are suspicious of the scientism of early Marxism, the tyrannical excesses of the Soviet model of communism, and the doctrinal posture of Communist parties generally. Perhaps it is not merely a coincidence that for decades Communists in Italy, inspired largely by Gramsci, have gained consistent political influence through parliamentary means. A dispute will remain, however, whether this shows that political activity inspired by Gramsci’s work is easily coopted by liberal-capitalist regimes or whether we are witnessing the building of a counterhegemonic force capable of eventually unsettling the dominant ensemble of relations in Europe.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

Adamson, Walter L. Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Traces the formation of Gramsci’s thought within the context of Western Marxism and the political and intellectual horizons of his time.

Bellamy, Richard, and Darrow Schecter. Gramsci and the Italian State. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1993. Emphasizes the political ramifications of Gramsci’s writings, focusing on the specific historical context of Gramsci’s role in contemporary political debates in Italy. Includes a biographical outline.

Cammett, John M. Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. One of the best books on Gramsci, this is the text that introduced his work to an English audience. Cammett treats Gramsci’s life up to his arrest in great detail and concludes with a general overview of the principal concerns in Prison Notebooks.

Clark, Martin. Antonio Gramsci and the Revolution That Failed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977. This book’s concerns are the postwar revolutionary years, the rise of workers’ councils, and the period of factory occupation. It highlights Gramsci’s role and the theoretical insights developed between 1919 and 1920.

Coben, Diana. Radical Heroes: Gramsci, Freire, and the Politics of Adult Education. New York: Garland, 1998. A look at the political aspects of adult education and socialism.

Femia, Joseph. Gramsci’s Political Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. One of the most thorough discussions of Gramsci’s work, which develops in some detail his ideas on hegemony, organic intellectuals, and the role of the modern political party. Femia also indicates the areas in which Gramsci has had a strong influence on the thinking of contemporary Italian communists.

Martin, James. Gramsci’s Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. An important dissection of Gramsci’s political thought and his contribution to political science.

Sassoon, Anne Showstack, ed. Approaches to Gramsci. London: Writers and Readers, 1982. A collection of essays by leading scholars from many different disciplines on Gramsci, his life and work, his commitment to revolution, and the cultural applications of his theories.

Williams, Gwyn A. Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils, and the Origins of Italian Communism, 1911-1921. London: Pluto Press, 1975. The best English-language treatment of the formative years in Gramsci’s political development, 1915-1920. Williams locates the stimulus to Gramsci’s later thinking in the revolutionary two years in Turin that followed World War I.

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